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Bedtime for Gonzo : HUNTER: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson By E. Jean Carroll (Dutton: $23; 352 pp.) : FEAR AND LOATHING: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson By Paul Perry ( Thunder's Mouth Press : $22.95; 274 pp. ) : WHEN THE GOING GETS WEIRD: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson By Peter O. Whitmer ( Hyperion : $21.95; 264 pp. )

April 11, 1993|JOHN SCHULIAN | Schulian, 16 years in the newspaper business behind him, is a television writer and producer

The last memorable thing I read by Hunter Thompson was written in his own hand on sheets from a legal pad. There were maybe a dozen pages in all, and atop the first one, he had printed NOT FOR PUBLICATION in red ink, a warning that forced the magazine editor showing me Thompson's missive into grudging acquiescence.

The hell of it was, this was something the world should have seen--the good doctor of gonzo journalism carving up the pornographic film industry, skewering producers for their abject greed and at least one female star for being meaner than Roberto Duran. It was the foundation for a magazine piece that could have become a book, but it would be neither because that would have forced Thompson to attempt greatness in print. And he couldn't do that in 1984 any more than he can now.

Beset by the demons of paranoia, fogged in by years of drink and drugs, perhaps strangling on a meanness that has finally turned inward, Thompson reigns as the foremost basket case in contemporary American letters. He hasn't delivered a first-rate book since performing surgery without anesthetic on the '72 presidential campaign, nor has he produced any vintage reportage since he used the Pulitzer divorce trial a decade ago as an excuse to disembowel Palm Beach society. If he has any place at all in the national consciousness today, it is as Uncle Duke in "Doonesbury," a caricature he hates though it is shaped by his own words.

But all of the above does not diminish what used to be. At the peak of his powers, Thompson poured his work and his life in a Waring blender and whipped up the mesmerizing jumble that defined this country for a generation lurching from the hopelessness of the '60s into the awfulness of the Nixon years.

He could grab you with a single sentence, as in the opening of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas": "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." And he could level a target with a single image, as he proved by calling Hubert Humphrey "a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who ought to be put in a bottle and sent out with the Japanese tide." Add his exotic punctuation and paragraphs that consisted of nothing but worlds like "Madness!", and you had a writer who inspired as many bad prose styles as Tom Wolfe did. Thompson's brand of anarchy, however, went far beyond words. Like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs before him, he was a literary outlaw, and he put the spin of his era on that role. He rode with the Hell's Angels, ran for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, watched Bill Murray portray him in a truly awful movie, and never left home without a pocket full of pharmaceuticals.

If you think we will see Thompson's equal for sheer gall and self-abuse in this lifetime, get thee to a rubber room. And while you are there, read the three biographies of him that are butting heads in our bookstores. They aren't the first of their kind and they almost certainly won't be the last, but they do make two important points: One Hunter Thompson is enough, and so is one book about him.

The book I have in mind is E. Jean Carroll's "Hunter," a triumph of image-shattering oral history over parody so achingly awful I'm still not sure what was being parodied. But first allow me to dismiss Carroll's competition, starting with "When the Going Gets Weird," the dust jacket of which would have us believe that Peter O. Whitmer has written "a very unauthorized biography." Very superficial is more like it. Whitmer doesn't lay a glove on any number of potentially rich sources of information, and he tapdances around even something as serious as the fact that Thompson's gay brother has AIDS. But maybe that's to be expected from a writer who walked away from a single dinner meeting with Thompson thinking he had peered into the great man's soul.

"Fear and Loathing" is hardly an improvement, though author Paul Perry assures readers in his preface that the biography they are holding is "violently unauthorized." Personally, I can't see anything so violent about the big, wet journalistic kiss he blows Thompson. What I see is the work of a sycophant who, in his days as an editor at Running magazine, sucked up to Thompson to coax a story out of him and hasn't stopped since. The result is tacit approval of the bad habits that have short-circuited Thompson's creativity and a refusal to pursue what cartoonist Ralph Steadman scrawled about his erstwhile partner in craziness on the book's dust jacket: "Oh! That sleazy brain-damaged cretinous BASTARD! Don't ask me about him."

It could be one more gonzo put-on. But it isn't, as E. Jean Carroll discovered by pressing the issue. "You don't know what a terrible tongue-lashing I'd get from (Thompson)," Steadman explained in declining her request for an interview. "He can be pretty brutal when he wants to be. I won't. I can't. I won't talk to you. I'm sorry. It's just ridiculous. All I'd get is bloody hideous abuse. I can't take any more."

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